Motivated Handheld Camera in BARRY LYNDON
Locked-off filmmaking takes lots of time and coordination between your camera operator, AC, and actors. It also requires more precise blocking –– after all, an actor missing their mark may screw up the focus, especially when shooting wide open.
Choosing a looser handheld style takes a lot of pressure off the camera team, since they have the freedom to “find the shot” as they film. I understand why many directors opt for this style. It probably cuts entire days from their schedule!
But in my opinion, shooting an entire movie handheld sort of misses the entire point of directing. It turns your movie into a fly-on-the-wall recording session, where all you’re doing is glorified event capture. Furthermore, handheld camera is usually equated with “shaky cam” –– when the camera operator compensates for lack of energy in the scene by shaking the frame –– and it’s something I normally avoid at all costs.
That’s not to say handheld camera doesn’t have its uses for specific scenes. For example, switching to a handheld in the middle of a formally-shot film can create a great contrast in energy. In BARRY LYNDON, Kubrick switches from locked-off to handheld in the same scene:
Notice how everything begins with steady camera movement and long shot lengths. When Lyndon finally bursts into anger at 3:39, the scene immediately switches to handheld. This is extremely effective in showing the inappropriateness of his unhinged reaction, especially in such a repressed setting.
All of the great directors utilize handheld camerawork, but they only use it when it’s motivated. I try to do the same.